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When David O. Selznick became head of production at the troubled RKO Studios in late 1931, one of the properties he inherited from his predecessor was an out of fashion play, The Bird of Paradise (1912), about a doomed interracial romance between a young American and a Polynesian beauty. The play, which made legendary stage actress Laurette Taylor a star, had been a success in its day, and had helped popularize Hawaiian music and culture. Selznick invited one of M-G-M's top directors, King Vidor, to read the play and consider directing a film version for RKO as a vehicle for Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. Vidor began reading the play, but couldn't get through it. He told Selznick it would make a terrible film and he wasn't interested. Selznick, who hadn't read the play either, was undeterred. He told Vidor, "Just give me three wonderful love scenes...I don't care what story you use so long as you call it Bird of Paradise and del Rio jumps into the volcano at the end." Attracted by the freedom, and the chance to portray the ethnographic details of Polynesian culture (his first talkie, 1929's Hallelujah! had explored the lives of Southern blacks), Vidor agreed.
For the male lead, Selznick cast the strapping, athletic Joel McCrea. According to McCrea, Selznick had seen him surfing at the beach in Santa Monica. Selznick told McCrea he'd cast him in a movie if McCrea taught him to surf. McCrea agreed, but Selznick never got the hang of it. However, he told the actor "I always keep my word," and gave him the lead in Bird of Paradise (1932). Cast in a bit part as a sailor who helps rescue McCrea from a shark was Creighton Chaney, the son of Lon Chaney. It was young Chaney's film debut. He would later be billed as Lon Chaney, Jr., and would have a long and successful career as a character actor, and as a star of horror films.
There was some urgency about starting production on Bird of Paradise because del Rio's contract stipulated that filming must begin by late January. So Vidor and screenwriter Wells Root left for Hawaii to scout locations without a finished script. As they toured the islands and explored local customs, they came up with additional story and characters. By the time cast and crew arrived, they had cobbled together some semblance of a screenplay, which included a shark attack, McCrea riding a sea turtle, del Rio dancing a topless hula in a ring of fire, and of course, a raging volcano. Vidor later called the film a "potboiler."
Vidor had hoped to work with a small crew and shoot verite style, as he had on Hallelujah!, but that was not Selznick's way. In his autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree (1953), Vidor lamented the damage to the landscape inflicted by the studio's trucks, equipment and crews. That wasn't the only problem he encountered. Weeks of bad weather left him with very little usable footage and crews waiting idly for a break in the storms. There were compensations. While in Hawaii Vidor, whose marriage to actress Eleanor Boardman was rocky, fell in love with the script girl, Elizabeth Hill. They would marry later that year after his divorce from Boardman. Finally, Vidor and his crew gave up and went back to California, completing their location work on Catalina Island, and in a native village set that had been built at the studio in their absence (it was also used the following year for King Kong, 1933).
Max Steiner's lush score for Bird of Paradise used traditional Hawaiian melodies mixed with original music, and the instrumentation included vibraphone, marimbas, ukuleles, and steel guitar. That kind of pastiche Polynesian score would become a clich in movies about the South Seas, but was first used in Bird of Paradise, its rhythms heightening the film's eroticism. Because it was the era when the Production Code was not being enforced, Vidor was able to include a swimming scene in which del Rio is apparently nude, and McCrea nearly so. For del Rio's sensuous dance, her costume consists of a grass skirt, and flower leis strategically glued to her naked breasts. Choreographing the dances was Busby Berkeley, who was not yet the acclaimed director of Warner Bros. musical extravaganzas. Selznick had seen and liked the dances Berkeley had created for Goldwyn musicals such as Whoopee! (1930) and Palmy Days (1931), and hired him for Bird of Paradise.
All the delays and extravagances sent Bird of Paradise far over budget. It had been budgeted at $450,000 and ended up costing at least $725,000. Though the film performed well at the box office, it did not make back its cost. Plans to re-team McCrea and Del Rio in a film version of W. H Hudson's novel, Green Mansions, which had a theme similar to Bird of Paradise about a white man falling in love with a "savage", were scrapped. A 1959 film version of Green Mansions starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins was not a success either.
Bird of Paradise inspired a number of similar white man-native girl romances from the 1930s to the 1950s. It was remade in 1951, with Louis Jourdan and Debra Paget in the leading roles, but that was a different time, and a much different film. There was little of the eroticism that made the 1932 version so memorable. In his 1992 biography of Selznick, Showman, David Thomson acknowledges that the 1932 Bird of Paradise is racist and often ludicrous. "This film is hokum," he writes. "But the love scenes are beguiling; Del Rio's laugh, her winged eyelashes, the peril with which flowers cling to her breasts, and the suggestiveness of the dialogue are still arousing." Clearly, Selznick got the "three wonderful love scenes" that he wanted.
Producer-Director: King Vidor
Executive Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Leonard Praskins, Wells Root, Wanda Tuchock
Based on the play by Richard Walton Tully
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot, Edward Cronjager, Clyde De Vinna
Editor: Archie F. Marshek
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Choreography: Busby Berkeley (uncredited)Cast: Joel McCrea (Johnny Baker), Dolores del Rio (Luana), John Halliday (Mac), Richard "Skeets" Gallagher (Chester), Bert Roach (Hector), Creighton Chaney [Lon Chaney, Jr.] (Thornton), Napoleon Pukui (The King).
by Margarita Landazuri